Women played many fundamental roles in Scandinavia during the Viking Age (eighth to eleventh century). Their positions ranged from slave to farmer to landholder and their tasks varied from the spinning and weaving of cloth, manufacturing garments and hangings, preserving, producing and cooking food and drink, tending livestock, working in the fields, cleaning and laundry to warming beds. There is little known about women in urban areas but if they were married to craftsmen or merchants, presumably they helped with their husband’s business. The main sources of information on Viking Age women are archaeology along with the written sagas, poetry and runes and depictions of women in art.
Preparing and Serving Food
Women during this historical era managed all of the affairs related to inside the house while men were in charge of everything outside the house although women did venture outside for tasks related to their duties inside. The most telling evidence of women’s work comes from the preponderance of goods found in graves. Women were buried with the tools of housekeeping and weaving while men were buried with items related to warring and fighting. Women would maintain and run farms while the men were away.
Women were in charge of the dairy operations. During the summer months, the Vikings made their home in the mountains in a shieling, a small house. The milch cows and ewes would be together near the shieling with a herdsman but the other animals would be free to roam. The women would perform the milking and create the dairy products which were an important part of the Scandinavian diet. This included fresh butter and a long-lasting butter made from sour cream and highly salted. They also made a soft cheese from sour fermented milk and a form of cheese curds called skyr. They would usually drink plain or boiled whey instead of the whole milk and would turn the whey into buttermilk.
Women would help with the harvest and the haymaking as the presence of sickles in graves indicates. In poor families, women would work in the fields during the harvest. In wealthier families, servants or slaves did some of the harder outdoor work. Women would collect berries, mosses, herbs, seaweed, wild fruit and bird’s eggs. Women washed clothes, usually in streams and they were also responsible for drawing and fetching water for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Women were responsible for the preparation and serving of meals. There were usually two meals a day; one in the morning about eight or nine and one in the evening after the men’s work was over about seven or eight. Meals were eaten in the main room of the house. The food was served in wooden bowls and dishes carried by women servants. They also filled the tankards and drinking horns. If there were guests, the mistress of the household and her daughters may have helped serve.
Foods that required no cooking included cheeses and skyr, salted meat or dried raw fish. Cooked meat and fish, porridge, gruel and bread were staples. Evidence exists that meat was roasted on a spit or baked in a pit filled with embers and covered with earth. This system was also used to bake bread and oat cakes and to make stews. The main drink was ale. Wine and mead were imported from countries further south.
Cloth and Weaving
A task women performed year round was the making of cloth which would be for household needs and also for export to Norway and England. Linen was made but the most common cloth was wool. This involved the shearing of sheep or goats and then cleaning and grading the wool. The wool was degreased and then carded with fingers or a comb to straighten it and separate the fibers. Next it would be spun on a distaff and spindle. The wool would be drawn out into a thread and then wound up, repeating the process until they had enough for a large ball of yarn. The thread may or may not have been dyed. The spinning process could be done in the arms, allowing the women to sit or walk around while performing the task.
Weaving was done on an upright loom against a wall in the house and the pattern was worked from the top downwards. The thread was passed back and forth and then beaten up with a wooden or whalebone “sword”. The standard width of the cloth was probably about two ells (roughly three feet). More valuable cloth was made from dyed wool often in stripes or a pattern. The most popular color was red from the rose madder or Rubia tinctorum which grows freely in Iceland. Other colors were reddish-browns and violets from certain lichens and black from bog-mud permeated with iron. Some mineral dyes were also known.
Even more decorative weaving could be done on smaller looms. Narrower bands of cloth were sometimes woven which were used to trim the edges of garments and for headbands. These were created by a method called “tablet-weaving”. The warp threads were passed through the corners of a small square board or bone plaque. Examples of this type of weaving have been found in graves and have silver and gold threads woven into them. Some sagas mention these decorative weavings and ribbons.
Objects found in Norse women’s graves related to textile work include distaffs, spindles, and small looms, weaving “swords”, wool-combs and large bone needles. Needles cases have also been found along with tweezers and different sizes of scissors. This indicates women practiced needlework and embroidery. They used wool, imported silk and silver threads. Narrative art in needle work was a skillful practice for women too.
There is a surprising consistency in the basic costume Viking women wore. They always wore a large pair of oval brooches, about four to five inches long that are known as “tortoise brooches” due to their appearance. These were worn in the area of the collar bone and held together with links of silver chain or beads. Dangling from the right hand brooch hung chains with other items such as keys, a knife, a comb, scissors, needles and maybe a purse. There may have been an additional brooch in the middle of the chest. Its shape varied from square or three-lobed, long or round.
Women wore a linen shift next to the skin which may or may not have had sleeves. It also may or may not have had pleats. Over the linen shift was a twofold garment which hung from two loops, held in place by the tortoise brooches. It appears this twofold garment was wrapped under the arms, one from right to left, and the other from left to right. The material of these garments was sometimes wool and sometimes linen with the outer material always of better quality material than the inner. Over all these garments was a fine woolen cloak or shawl which the third brooch held in place. These dresses hung loose or were tied up with an apron or a knotted girdle.
Viking women loved jewelry judging from the archaeological evidence. They wore the requisite brooches along with arm and finger rings, neck rings, and even toe rings. These rings were made from silver, gold and sometimes jet. Necklaces were made of domestic glass, bronze or amber beads and some were made with imported semi-precious stones such as crystal, cornelian or obsidian. Pendants were also popular.
Women and Family
It is most likely girls during the Viking Age in Scandinavian society did not receive much in the way of education. They were expected to marry, have children and manage the household which she could learn from her mother. The “Sagas of Icelanders” notes a considerable number of cases where girls married at the age of twelve or in their early teens. Women didn’t live as long as men due to the vagaries of childbirth so they had to marry early.
The distinguishing factor for a man between a wife and his concubines was the bride-price he paid for the wife. It was normal practice for the bride to receive a dowry from her father and a gift from her husband the day after her wedding. A portion of these gifts were retained as her own property. A valid wedding ceremony included drinking “bridal ale” before witnesses and the witnesses leading the man to the wife’s bed. The wife kept her name and patronymic and her ties with her kinsmen were never broken.
A woman’s main duty was to provide children and preferably male children. The upkeep of small children would have taken up the bulk of a woman’s time. Children were breast fed for a long time. Women also were responsible for tending to and nursing the elderly and the sick. Rich Viking men had concubines and relations with slave women and many illegitimate children. The status of these children never suffered. All the children, legitimate and illegitimate, were usually brought up at home although some male children could be sent to another home as foster-sons.
Adultery by a wife was a crime. According to some provincial Danish and Swedish law, a wife’s adultery gave the husband the right to kill her and her lover if they were caught in the act. Men generally had more leeway in committing adultery. The evidence points to polygamy being practiced by many Scandinavian earls and kings.
Divorce was easy and had no stigma for either party. Either the husband or the wife could declare before witnesses their complaint and their intention to divorce. The woman would usually return to her family with her personal belongings and her dowry. It is clear the woman kept her dowry so she would not become destitute after divorce.
Rune stones from the Viking Age show that the system of kinship was bilateral, meaning women could inherit property as well as men. Sons were usually given a stronger claim than their sisters but daughters had precedence over their uncles and grandfathers. Most importantly, women could inherit land from their sons and daughters who died without issue. The significance of securing family property was more important than maintaining the system of patriarchy.
There were unmarried women during the Viking Age. Those who were not needed at home could hire themselves out to do work such as cloth making and washing, cleaning, baking and brewing. Widows enjoyed a certain amount of freedom. She was no longer beholden to her father or her husband and may have inherited considerable property giving her economic security. The most notorious Viking women held power through their children and could maintain considerable respect if they had lucrative dowries and landholdings.
There are some accounts of women who had personal power and wealth. There’s the story of Aud the Deep-Minded who led her family to Iceland and meted out land among them as if she were a chieftain. There are inscriptions on rune stones attesting to bereaved women who paid for and erected the commemorative stones or built causeways and bridges in memory of their loved ones. A few of these stones were raised in honor of women. Some of the richest graves are those of women, indicating great respect, especially of older women. Grave goods buried with women could include pairs of scales representing good housekeeping or with keys to food or treasure chests indicating their authority in the home.
Women, on occasion, would participate in the proceedings to make laws called “things” but mostly as companions to men. They played a primary role in practicing medicine, using herbs and meting out advice handed down through generations. Women were also practitioners of magical medicine, using charms and incantations.
In summary, grave goods signify the type of work related to women during the Viking Age. These objects indicate women’s tasks were related to the preparation of food and clothing. Women were responsible for bringing up children and caring for the elderly. They did have the ability to become merchants, work outdoors on the farm and perform carpentry and leatherwork as well as practice medicine. Burials indicate women could achieve a high social standing in rural communities. The sumptuous burial of Oseberg especially shows women attained power, influence and wealth. But these women were the exception.
The introduction of Christianity in Scandinavia opened up the opportunity for women to travel on pilgrimages to the far reaches of the known world. It is clear from the rune stones and saga evidence that women did travel and helped colonize Iceland, Greenland, Scotland and the Faroe Islands and even North America. There is clear evidence women also accompanied men on trading and raiding voyages, especially in England. Burials in the trading centers of Birka, Hedeby and others suggest women did engage in trade and manufacturing and crafts either alone or with their husbands. It is clear women played an integral role during the Viking Age.
Further reading: “Women in the Viking Age: by Judith Jesch, “A Brief History of the Vikings” by Jonathan Clements, “Everyday Life in the Viking Age” by Jacqueline Simpson, “Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen” by Kirsten Wolf